Saturday, 31 July 2010

My drug habit

I came very late to drug addiction: in my teens and twenties I was too innocent to notice what was going on. Once at a party a girl passed me a lighted cigarette, which I obligingly stubbed out for her; she told me irritably that it was her last joint and I felt an awful fool.

Later, when travelling overseas, I found out what kif, ganja, blow, toot, christina, dagga, Miss Emma and all the rest were, by being offered them or by being told about them by knowing friends, or learning that the rather pleasant smell I had noticed was caused by the airheads puffing away around us.

But in the last few years, and particularly in the last few months, I have become a major player on the drugs scene, not as a burnout or a paper boy or a pusher, but certainly as a user. When people notice my erratic behaviour and ask me what I'm on I usually reply "Oh, just a bit of pot at weekends", because to give the whole list would take too long. Here it is:

Swallowed daily: Metformin, Ibuprofen, Simvastatin, Ramipril, Finasteride, Lansoprazole (Omeprazole), Tamsulosin (Stronazon), Nembeterin (Cholisterin)
Swallowed three days in every fortnight: Odansetron, Dexamethason
Swallowed when required: Metoclopamide, Loperamide
Dripped in for two hours once a fortnight: Oxaliplatin and calcium folinate (folinic acid)
Pumped in for two days in every fortnight: Fluorourcil

(Curiously, there is very little main-lining involved and no sniffing up the nose, so I suppose I'm not considered a serious user.)

I shall be finished with some of these substances in August (I dread the cold turkey), but the rest I must continue with until I go to that great pharmacy in the sky. The cost of all this to the NHS must be enormous, perhaps equivalent to the maintenance of a medium-sized primary school or a battalion of the Coldstream Guards. But still, if I had become addicted to, say, crack cocaine, I might have taken up mugging or burglary which would have cost the taxpayer much more in the long run, so I don't feel too bad about it.

(I do not want OMF to lose its hard-won reputation for frivolous and trivial writing; it s widely respected as The Blog That Cannot be Trusted. The above list is perfectly accurate except for one drug I have included which does not yet exist. It will be used for the treatment of obstreosis of the ductal tract (tertiary), if someone invents it.)

Monday, 26 July 2010

Soldiers of the King, Part One

Warning: This post consists of personal reminiscences, and is therefore of no interest whatsoever to anyone except my family and close friends, and very little to them. Some names have been changed to protect the guilty, though the chances are that these are all dead.

Two years into a degree course I was asked to leave University College London, mainly because I was no good with Meccano. This meant that my deferment from National Service expired and I was invited to carry out two years of it. I didn't mind much because I hadn't been enjoying myself learning to be a Mechanical Engineer.

During basic training I applied to be sent on a WOSB (War Office Selection Board for Officer Cadet School). I wanted to be an officer, not from any inflated ideas about my leadership qualities but because I rather fancied myself in the hat, with, under my arm, the little stick they give you, presumably for striking recalcitrant private soldiers lightly on the face to enforce discipline. And anyway, I suspected that many junior officers are asses and that I would not have much difficulty in keeping up with them. I must have explained this rather badly, because the members of the board smiled gently and suggested that it might be better for everyone if I finished my training and then became a driver, or something.

In a fit of pique I volunteered to be sent abroad as soon as they had taught me to drive; I was not seeking adventure but merely thought that spending the rest of my two years military duties in some exotic spot might be more enjoyable than languishing in Aldershot. The choices were limited to Korea, where there was a war going on, and Egypt, where a General Neguib (Nasser's predecessor) was being disrespectful to us.

I chose Egypt and was quickly despatched to a Field Bakery unit at Ismailia on the Suez canal. There I shared a tent with five other conscripts. I had little in common with them but after initial suspicion they decided that I was harmless and they treated me with an amused contempt. Actually, we became good friends; I helped them with writing letters to their wives and girl friends and they treated me as a sort of mascot, calling me 'Perfessor'.

They were a colourful bunch of characters but only two stay in my memory: Paddy Reilly, who thought 'the murtherin' British' ought to leave Ireland forthwith, and Filthy MacDonald, whose speciality when dealing with men who did not share his opinions was 'gi'ing 'em the heid'. I taught him a bit about writing and he taught me a bit about how to use a shiv.

The unit was equipped with AEC Matadors, 10-ton diesel trucks used for pulling mobile ovens when we drove out into the desert and baked 50,000 loaves for practice, or at other times for carrying loads of dough-encrusted 'whites' down the canal road to the laundry. They rather optimistically let me drive one, but not for long; to change gear you had to put both hands on the gearstick, brace your foot against the dashboard and heave. I was no good at all at this sort of thing and was soon transferred to the company office as a clerk.

There I had nothing much to do; I practised calligraphy with my letters home and filled in the time with little jobs like making out a Certificate of Competence to Drive for myself and getting it signed; of course I had had a test after my driver training, but this was given by the man who had taught me, and he wasn't going to fail anybody, was he? So, quite reasonably, you had to get the army to confirm that you could drive in order to obtain a civilian driving license, and this I was happy to do for myself.

And so the days wore on. It wasn't a bad life really, though some found it so: some sad boy in a neighbouring unit couldn't stand it and one day ran amok with a sten gun, killing several of his fellow-conscripts. I heard that Albert Pierrepoint, then nearing retirement, was flown out to hang him, but I couldn't confirm that this was true.

I learned a few words of Arabic, none of which were of the slightest use to me in later years when I had to visit the Middle East frequently. There were also songs which we sang in raucous chorus: some of these were slanders on the private life of the Egyptian royals at the time, King Farouk and Queen Farida, while others were sentimental ballads with such refrains as You're My Little Gyppo Bint, You're Kuwayyis Ketir. These were mere fantasies, for penned up in our camps we never encountered any local beauties, and for most of us romance of any kind was just a dream: at that time there were 30,000 British troops in the Suez Canal Zone, so the few dozen NAAFI girls also serving there were not short of offers of one kind or another.

[Continued HERE. The next instalment will include what the brigadier said to his children and how my mother made the CO look a complete prat, which he was.]


Wednesday, 21 July 2010

Cheerio everybody!

No 31 in an occasional series of extracts from The Postcard Century
July 1927:  Dear Nellie, writes Ada to her friend, also in Tunbridge Wells. Congratulations on you reaching the age of discretion. Now you are able to think for yourself. 
The good-time Prince of Wales has a smoke, or perhaps (for once) not, since the cigarette looks to be added. What then was airbrushed in would now be airbrushed out.

Friday, 16 July 2010

Angel hair football coach?

Much has been written recently about one Fabio Capello, and some confusion has arisen about him, many people arguing that he is a kind of pasta and others saying that he is connected in some way with football or some such game.

For an authoritative answer to this question we can turn to that veritable vade mecum of sporting lore, Alan Davidson's Companion to Food, where Capello appears in the plural as:

Capelli d'angelo ('angel hair), capellini ('little hairs'), the thinnest form of the spaghetti family.

So that clears that up. While we are on the subject, let us note the names of a few other kinds of pasta which also have no connection with sport. Skipping those we all know like LASAGNE, MACARONI, VERMICELLI and so on, here are some of the less familiar (in England at any rate) ones:

BIGOLI, a thick spaghetti from Venice; BOMBOLETTI, a short cylindrical form with a smooth exterior; ELBO MACARONI, an American term for short, curved macaroni; LUMACHE, like snail shells; ORECCHIETTI, 'little ears'; SIDANI, a S. Italian sort of macaroni ridged like celery; ZITE/ZITI, a tubular pasta from Naples.

Davidson describes thirty-eight types of pasta. It is easy to see why it is said that 'Surface-to-volume ratio is important; marrying a particular form of pasta to a particular kind of sauce is an art instinctively acquired by Italians from an early age but needing to be learned by others'.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

A cooler London

Londoners cursing the heat may like to be reminded what London has been like from time to time in earlier years: "In its long history the river Thames has been frozen solid forty times", wrote Helen Humphreys as introduction to her book containing forty vignettes based on events that actually took place each time the river froze between 1492 and 1895. Here is part of one of them:

An entire village has been built upon the ice. Booths have been made from blankets and the oars of the watermen. The main thoroughfare between the booths has been named Freezland Street. There are coffee houses and taverns, booths that sell slices of roast beef. An ox has been roasted whole and a printing press has been set up so that one can have one's name printed in this place where men so oft were drowned. The Frost Fair is visited by a royal party that includes Charles II in what will be the last week of his life.

The watermen trade their boats for sledges and pull people across the river for the same price as when they had rowed them over. A whirly sledge twirls passengers around a stake set in the ice, Coaches are pulled by both horses and men. There are games of football and bowls, horse and donkey races. There is music and a large bear garden. A fox is hunted on the ice and a bull is staked out in a ring by the Temple Stairs. Dogs are tossed in to bait the bull and many are gored to death before the beast is brought down. Men have skates to slide over the river, and horses have have their hooves wrapped in linen to prevent this very same thing. Three cannons are brought out upon the ice to commemorate the royal visit, and boats are sent over the frozen Thames with their sails set and wheels fastened to their hulls to keep them upright.

What is remarkable about about the Frost Fair is that it does not operate by the same rules that govern life on land. It is a phenomenon and therefore free of the laws and practices of history. The poor and rich alike inhabit the same space, participate in the same sports and diversions, and are, for a very brief moment in time, equal citizens of a new and magical world.

Bull and bear baiting aside, all that sounds like a lot of fun, certainly better than sweaty old London as it is this week,

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Hi-de-hi-de-hi! Ho-de-ho-de-ho!

The other day I watched The Blues Brothers, the best musical comedy of all time; among the cast were Ray Charles, John Belushi, Aretha Franklin, Twiggy and Cab Calloway. Although I had seen the film before, I had forgotten that Calloway was in it and when I wrote an autobiographical note which mentioned him I had recorded my connection with the great man but not referred to the film. The connection was a tenuous one, being simply that I was born on the day he published Minnie the Moocher.

Forty-nine years later there he was in The Blues Brothers, still singing it with undiminished verve. He died in 1994 at the age of 86.

Thursday, 1 July 2010


Is Cameroon a mightier nation than Denmark? Can a graceless Scotsman beat a Frenchman called Jo-Wilfried Tsonga?

All those of us with little interest in such matters have had a hard time over the last few weeks; television has been pandering to the national addiction to a couple of sports so that these and many other similar questions have been exercising the minds, if that is the right word, of the addicted.

But there has been one consolation: it has been worthwhile to switch the TV on from time to time if only to catch one or two of a series of commercials currently appearing on TV3 which are impeccably written, casted, acted and directed. The fact that it is doubtful if I shall ever be seduced by them and buy the product is irrelevant: they have given me enormous pleasure.

They are for Birds Eye frozen meals, products of a company founded by Clarence Birdseye; the first retail sale of his frozen foods occurred on March 6, 1930, in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The principle of these little gems is quite simple: you are shown a scene of violence or romance and it is then revealed that one of the participants is uninterested in the action and is giving total attention to a frozen dinner, presumably thawed and cooked . For example, a line of riot police rattle their shields while the rioters attack them; then the camera pans to show that one of them, absolutely calm, is enjoying his meal. In another, two men crouch behind a car which is being struck by a hail of bullets; one of them is ducking and flinching but tucking in with gusto.

My favourite has a man in period costume entering through French windows with a girl over his shoulder; he looks behind him and gives an anguished cry of "Meredith!". Then he exits right and as he turns we see that the girl clasping him round the neck has a plate of food in one hand and, quite expressionless, is wielding a fork with the other.

What is going on? Who is this Meredith person and why is he or she so urgently required? Now those are questions which really do exercise the mind.